Life in not-for-profit: when a failed negotiation can be a matter of life or death

5 minute read

Trigger warning for: violence and suicide. The author references using negotiation skills learned on the programme in a real-world situation of a domestic violence intervention.

I recently handled a family violence case involving a mother with young children who was almost strangled to death by her spouse. The children witnessed this and, unfortunately, previous violent episodes as well. Upon assessing that the risk of potential violence was medium-to-high, I activated the Child Protection Service and put one women’s shelter on standby to receive this young mother. 

Together with legal counsel, I advised the young mother to apply for an Expedited Order, an emergency Personal Protection Order issued for cases where the judge finds imminent danger of violence being committed. I also developed a Safety Plan with the mother so that she would know how to respond in a crisis and subsequently referred her to receive specialised emotional support from a local not-for-profit organisation. I worked till past midnight that day. In fact, at the point of writing, I am still following up and monitoring this case very closely.

One thing I didn’t mention is that I volunteered to help this young mother on my birthday. In the country where I am from, I am a grassroots leader. Grassroots leaders are volunteers appointed by the government to serve in various grassroots organisations to bring the people and government closer. 

Due to my background in child protection and non-profit work, I am usually tasked with handling complex cases involving violence and crisis management. My friends asked me why I chose to volunteer my time to handle a complicated family violence case on my birthday. I told them I could not afford to have another person I help (almost) die in front of me again.

‘I am scared; please protect me.’

These are the words whispered into my ears by a seven-year-old girl – the reason I dedicated my life to the not-for-profit sector. This encounter happened almost 20 years ago, and it changed my life.

I was then a young Child Protection Officer investigating a girl who was almost stabbed to death by her own mother. The disruption of the nature of the parent-child relationship is what makes child abuse, especially if the physical, emotional and sexual harm is inflicted by one’s parents, particularly alarming. Parents play the role of the protector of their children, and the children trust and depend on their parents for love, sustenance and protection. Once this relationship has been compromised by the use of force, longer-term effects on the child may include psychological, behavioural and social impairment.

That fateful day, my job, and that of the two seniors supporting me on this case, was to explain to the mother the government’s intervention plan. That plan was to place her daughter in a foster home temporarily while the mother concurrently received necessary medical and psychological help.

Unfortunately, the negotiation with the mother took an unexpected turn for the worse. She threatened to kill herself in front of me. ‘If you take my child away, I will kill myself right in front of you’, the mother said exasperatedly. 

For the girl’s safety, my seniors had no choice but to step in to execute the girl’s removal against the mother’s will. While I was accompanying the girl in a separate room, she tiptoed over to me and whispered those life-changing words.

In hindsight, what seemed like a straightforward 'I-explain-and-you-comply' case turned out to be one of the biggest lessons I learnt about negotiation. I recognised that I should have used integrative bargaining instead of distributive bargaining techniques with the mother.

During the Oxford Programme on Negotiation I attended in June 2019, I learnt that, while the distributive negotiation technique typically results in an 'I-win-and-you-lose' outcome, integrative bargaining involves taking the other party’s wants, needs, fears, and concerns into the equation. The solution is that both parties have to give up something to finalise the deal in a win-win outcome. 

Till today, I still use incorporate elements of integrative bargaining in my repertoire of negotiation techniques when negotiating for fundraising deals and, even more so, during crisis management situations. Negotiation is a lifelong practice and the use of various negotiation techniques transcend industries and sectors. 

One of my favourite segments in the Negotiation programme is the sharing by a guest speaker, Sue Williams, who is a practising Hostage Negotiator and a former Head of the Hostage Crisis Unit at New Scotland Yard. Williams provided a different dimension to the science of negotiation by sharing the application beyond the corporate world and specifically in the context of crisis management and saving lives. I am glad that negotiation is also one of the core modules on the Oxford Executive MBA programme.

Williams’ sharing of her perspectives demonstrated the usefulness of the knowledge and skills learnt on the Oxford Executive MBA and how they can be applied in different sectors and industries. I look forward to further learning and practising my negotiation techniques with my classmates from the January 2021 cohort. I know that, in my line of work, a failed negotiation can be a matter of life and death.

Since the life-changing incident, I have dedicated my life to the not-for-profit sector. For the last decade, I have helped organisations fundraise and advance their causes by crafting powerful stories of their beneficiaries. Whenever I meet seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I draw emotional strength from this incident, reminding myself of the higher purpose of my work. The common misconception is that I saved the life of the seven-year-old girl that day; when, in fact, she saved mine by helping me realise my calling.